Last Christmas I got a really cool gift – one that I have only now begun to use and appreciate. It was the massive 10-CD box set ‘100 Best of Blue Note’. As of right now I can only find the collection in MP3 format on Amazon and iTunes, with the CD collection still listed on the German Blue Note site.
This is what you call ‘truth in advertising’ – the box consists of 100 tracks from the Blue Note collection of recordings, which theoretically spans from 1939 to the present, but much of which is focused from 1952 – 1972, with renewed energy starting in 1985 and quickly tailing of before again surging in the last decade. As expected, there is a smattering of just about everyone and everything here, with a clear focus on the ‘Blue Note Sound’. Let’s take a look!
Summary: With a collection like this the question has little to do with the quality of music in general, and more about the way the tracks are distributed on each CD and how the quality of sound on these mostly older analog recordings was updated and cleaned up for the CD transfer.
Assessing this collection is overwhelming- it is 10 CD’s with 10 songs each; includes classic artists like Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Django Reinhardt, Miles Davis, Ron Carter, Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Rollins, Bobby Hutcherson, John Coltrane, and Art Blakey; also includes newer artists like Herbie Hancock, John Scofield, Wynton Marsalis, Donald Harrison & Terence Blanchard, Stanley Jordan and even Norah Jones; the music spans decades and includes reinterpreted classics (Thad Jones doing Basie’s April In Paris) as well as original songs.
The first and most important thing to me is the sound quality – I have material from pretty much all of these artists on either vinyl or CD,and the range of quality is all over the place! Of course, when the source material is spread from wax cylinders from Django up through fully digital recordings from a pop singer like Norah Jones, it is hard to really compare.
Perhaps the ‘worst’ sounding song on the entire collection is Ornithology (Live – Storyville) from Charlie Parker. It sounds like a rather typical mid-to-late 1940’s where all you really hear is the horn with some cymbals and piano, with the drums and bass lost to the background. But that is the rare exception.
There is a certain ‘Blue Note Sound’ that culminated through the late 1950’s and 1960’s starting with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and continuing with Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, Lou Donaldson, Stanley Turrentine, Bobby Hutcherson and on and on. That sound sweeps through the entire set up until the Blue Note revitalization of 1985.
One great thing about the ‘Blue Note Sound’ – amazing engineering and production values. Starting with Out Of Nowhere by Django Reinhardt and Coleman Hawkins and continuing through almost every song, you can hear each note from each instrument crisp and clear, with room sounds, reverb and breaths also present in a very intimate way on some of the recordings. It is hard to think that many of these great sounding songs were recorded 50 years ago!
There is an amazing sampling of music from the so-called ‘Blue Note era’ – which is basically ‘Hard Bop’, but that form was dominated by Blue Note records for so long that it took on a new identity. Pretty much every disk (except for the last two) contains at least half of the songs from the artists associated with that sound – and it is space well spent! It separates this from just sounding like a random collection of music.
It wasn’t all straight-ahead ‘hard bop’ at Blue Note – in 1964 the label came out with one of my favorite records, Eric Dolphy’s ‘Out to Lunch’ which is fully in the ‘avant garde’ genre and the song ‘Something Sweet, Something Tender ‘ is included. Ornette Coleman also recorded a few times for the label with one song represented, and there were a number of other ‘modern’ artists on the label in the late 1960’s.
In 1985 tap-guitarist Stanley Jordan came out with his album ‘Magic Touch’, which was part of the relaunch of the label and was release number ‘85101’! Jordan is an amazingly talented guitarist who has struggled through the years to expand his voice beyond what became somewhat of a gimmick after a while. Here we find him at his very best with a cover of Miles Davis’ “Freddie Freeloader”.
What do I NOT like? Well, I’ll just say I’m not rushing out to buy any Stacey Kent records. She has a sweet and smooth lounge vocal style, but like (s)Norah Jones makes little lasting impression on me. Some of the other more recent material sounds derivative … but perhaps that is due to me deep-seated familiarity with all of the pre-2000’s material here and the obvious impact it has on the younger artists. There wasn’t a single song I felt the need to skip, nor have I deleted anything out of my playlist.
Overall I absolutely adore this set. It is an excellent presentation of the core styles of modern jazz along with a preponderance of the great artists who played those styles. It isn’t comprehensive, but that isn’t the intent. It is also extremely accessible while still being deep – my family likes it all, yet I always learn new stuff when I listen. Definitely one of the better box sets I have come across!
Choice Track (and why): “Monk In Wonderland” by Grachan Moncur III. I knew the song immediately, as it was played occasionally enough on ‘Eric in the Evening’ (WGBH) and ‘The Jazz Spectrum’ (WHRB) in Boston radio. But I never owned it – until now! It is a gorgeous track, and as I have since discovered – Evolution is a gorgeous album. Grachan Moncur III is not at all well known, which makes his presence on this collection even more important! We all know Miles and Bird and Trane … but the ability for die-hard fans to STILL find new things makes this worth it to me.
You Might Love This If: This is a tough value call for me – at $50 it isn’t a casual purchase, so you need to already be a jazz lover. But if you are, chances are you already have some music by at least a half-dozen of these artists. So the question is: should you buy this for $50 or seek out albums from these artists on Amazon and end up with 7 – 10 full classic albums instead. Tough call – but if you want a broad spectrum of classic jazz, this collection is hard to beat!
Where to Buy: Amazon.com – $45.15 or iTunes – $49.99
Here is a live version of Herbie Hancock playing Canteloupe Island: